BitDepth 745 - August 24

Considerations at play when buying a new digital camera.
Your new digital camera...

The actual camera matters far less than the intent of the photographer. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Over the last 33 years, there’s been one question that everybody who’s interested in photography always asks. In the last five years, since automation and software programming magic have improved the technology of photography by leaps and bounds, it gets asked much more frequently.
That question, of course, is which camera should I buy?

You should, of course, buy the camera you can afford that has all the features you need to accomplish the kind of photography you want to pursue. That means that you shouldn’t buy a point and shoot camera if you want to do sports action photography, but the choices are usually much more subtle than that.
It’s hard to impress on eager amateurs the simple truth that a camera is just a light-tight box that’s only as good as the mind that brings the images it takes into focus. It’s doubly difficult to do this after impressionable minds have been viewing slick ads and reading reviews that promote the newest features.

For the camera buyer, there’s a dirty little secret of modern digital photography that you really should be aware of. When you buy a camera, you’re buying two things, a system of photographic accessories and a sensor.
My own choice of camera system wasn’t based on megapixels or hardware specifications. I asked my peers in the business about their experiences with after purchase service with the two biggest names in the business and chose accordingly. My experiences since then have proved the advice I got to be absolutely accurate.

Most of the recognisable names in modern digital cameras, Nikon, Canon and Sony (who bought Minolta’s business) have reasonably complete lines of lenses and a number of eager third party manufacturers willing to sell you cheaper versions of them. Still, be sure that the camera system you buy into has the kind of lenses and other accessories that will support your style and genre of photography. I’m a Canon guy, but I have to confess to naked envy of Nikon’s off-camera speedlight triggering system.

Sensors are a trickier matter. There’s no getting around the fact that bigger is better. That’s why top of the line digital cameras from Phase One and Hasselblad sell for the same price as a ‘cheap’ BMW. But it’s also the reason why pictures from a good point and shoot camera are better than those taken by a camera built into a phone and why digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) remain the choice for quality among camera enthusiasts.

While the sensor in the average DSLR camera is roughly 30 percent smaller than the film it replaced (called the crop factor), it packs a lot of light sensitive photosites into that space and the results will far outstrip all but the most sophisticated of prosumer point and shoot cameras.
In a nutshell? Buy the cheapest DSLR body that offers the sensor you need (normally the newest revision of a consumer grade DSLR uses the same sensor that was found in previous version of pro-level camera body) and buy the most expensive lens you can afford. That’s a formula that delivers remarkable image quality on a budget. There’s an extended
explanation here.

Both of the big names in digital cameras, Canon and Nikon have aggressive entries in the beginner’s category at remarkably affordable prices for the features offered. As of this writing, Nikon’s D5000 and Canon’s XSi ride near the top of the sales charts at Amazon, a good indicator of their popularity with consumers looking for an affordable entry point into a rich camera ecosystem.

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